"This land is my native land. And yet
I am sick for home for the red roofs and the olives,
And the foreign words and the smell of the sea fall.
How can a wise man have two countries?
How can a man have the earth and the wind and want
A land far off, alien." -- Archibald MacLeish
When I discovered this poem, I had just moved to Massachusetts after two years in Greece. MacLeish was writing about Italy; the roofs in Greece are mostly flat and white. I don’t like olives and can smell the sea from here. But the land of the original Olympians remains, emotionally, my other home.
In truth, Greece is not that alien. Our own history begins in Mesopotamia, then jumps to Hellenica where it picks up its philosophy, form of government, science and art. Once I learned the ancient alphabet, I recognized the root words that hold much of our own language in place. Philosophy: love of wisdom. Democracy: rule of the people. Politics: rule of the politicians. Or, as a conservative friend insists, "many (poly) ticks".
Just kidding. The word "politics" probably comes from "polis", the ancient Greek word for the independent city-state that was often at conflict with other independent city-states, of which Athens was one. According to my battered 1969 Fodor’s Guide, the fundamental principle of city-state government was "freedom limited by self-control," probably more the ideal than the reality yet still a worthy goal for us all.
Think about this: almost three thousand years ago, citizens from this amazing place came up with the concept of respect for the individual, for what he could achieve in a climate of freedom. This lends credence to the theory that the natural state of mankind is individualism, and makes one wonder why this hasn’t caught on more over the centuries. By now it should be the norm planet-wide, it seems to me.
I was twenty-five years old when I moved to Athens, to a suburb named Kifissia at the foot of Mount Pentelicon where Greek marble is still quarried. My son was four, his blonde hair patted often by the child-loving natives. My husband was stationed at Nea
Makri, across the mountain near Marathon. The Olympic marathon will begin there, tracing the route of Pheidippides to the acropolis of Athens.
I never had any desire to run the route, myself, but once covered it on my Honda motorbike, trying to keep up with guys from the base on their Harleys and
Kawasakis; they’d stop and wait for me beside the meadows of wild red poppies. And I always took visitors personally on the train from Kifissia into downtown Athens, where we could walk through the Plaka up the dirt road to the Acropolis. Whether in the morning, the dry heat of midday, the cooler evening or on a moonlit night, I never tired of the experience.
The Parthenon was the temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war. I keep an alabaster statue of her in my living room to honor that politically incorrect juxtaposition. There was nothing sentimental about Athena; she saw the world as it really was, and is. Greece itself is not a sentimental country. Even in the coastal landscape, you see the shape of things, not lush green camouflage.
Of course, Greece used to have more trees; Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night's Dream" was sited in the woods outside Athens. The use of wood fuel created an early-version energy crisis. There are still groves of silvery-leaved olive trees though, and dark pines high on the mountains, with thyme and oregano bushes on the lower slopes. Amidst this, the brilliant original colors of the temples have faded over the centuries to a creamy gold that does not distract from architectural perfection, however ruined.
I loved: Delphi, the spiritual center of Europe, more peaceful in February than during tourist season, either ancient or modern. More than its bronze Charioteer, the breathtaking bronze statue of Poseidon at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. The sea god’s own temple southeast of Athens at
Sounion, where tourist Lord Byron carved his initials in one of the remaining twelve Doric columns. The gloomy ruins of Mycenae, where Agamemnon ruled. And further across the
Peloponnese, Olympia, scenter of the Panhellenic games which continue today, much expanded.
Nothing can prepare visitors for the first sight of the Acropolis as they approach Athens from the airport: it looks like a giant billboard, especially when lit at night. I have total recall of the salty taste of tiny chunks of lamb or pork on little sticks that can still, I hope, be purchased from street vendors in the marketplace or at the Corinth Canal. And the melancholy sound of bouzouki music calling from a
taverna, and the scent of gardenias offered by street vendors. The senses respond to the wonder that is Greece, and then refuse to leave, so thatone remains homesick for "the land far off." forever.